On 1 October 2015, Somalia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), leaving the United States of America as the only remaining member state of the UN not to embrace this most universally accepted human rights treaty.
It baffles the rest of the world, and many thoughtful Americans, as to why the US has chosen to be the odd man out in not embracing this most humanitarian of all human rights treaties that seeks to protect the rights and well-being of the world’s most vulnerable children. It is all the more surprising if one considers that many distinguished American scholars and experts were actively involved in drafting the CRC, and the US government played a leadership role in negotiating and shaping it. But most American citizens remain unaware of this great human rights treaty that their country helped create, but refuses to ratify. Interestingly, while the US has failed to ratify the CRC, it has ratified two Optional Protocols to the CRC – on the sale and trafficking of children, child prostitution and pornography, as well as involvement of children in armed conflict.
The US reluctance to ratify the CRC seems to be part of a broader phenomena of “American exceptionalism” which holds that while the rest of the world needs to be bound by human rights treaties and conventions, the US need not join them as the US already has a great Constitution and progressive laws that are strong and often superior to what might be contained in such international treaties. Accordingly, the US is always reluctant and slow in ratifying any international conventions, including those that it may have played an active role in drafting, such as the Rome Statue on International Criminal Court, the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the CRC. Many Americans seem to feel that that such treaties might be necessary and useful for other countries, but not for the US, because they fear these might actually lower the standards contained in the US Constitution or create undesirable international obligations for the US. Such is the sense of self-righteousness among some key and influential American legislators that evidence to the contrary is conveniently ignored or dismissed. Last year, over 100 CEOs and leaders of prominent American child welfare organizations and faith-based groups made an impassioned joint appeal that President Obama should immediately order the State Department to undertake a thorough formal review of the CRC, so that it is ready for submission to the Senate for ratification whenever the situation becomes more favourable.
The American Bar Association has done a comparative review of the CRC and the US Constitution and relevant federal laws, and determined that these are either mutually compatible or the CRC’s standards are more in keeping with the emerging human rights norms of the modern world. The CRC recognises every child’s right to develop physically, mentally and socially to his or her fullest potential, to be protected from abuse, discrimination, exploitation and violence; to express his or her views and to participate in decisions affecting his or her future. It reaffirms the primary role of parents and the family in raising children. It seeks to emulate key provisions on child rights and well-being under the US Constitution and laws.
Some opponents of the CRC in America argue that it would impose all kinds of terrible international obligations that maybe harmful to America and its children and families. These range from how possible UN interference might compromise the sovereignty of the US and undermine its Constitution to how the CRC might weaken American families and role of parents in bringing up their children. Others stress how it might bring about a culture of permissiveness, including abortion on demand, and unrestricted access to pornography and how it might empower children to sue their parents and disobey their guidance. But in 25 years of experience in over a hundred countries, rich and poor, with liberal as well as conservative governments, such concerns have proven to be unfounded, exaggerated and hypothetical.
Studies by the highly respected American NGO the Children’s Defense Fund, UNICEF and others show that compared to the wealth of the US, a shocking number of children continue to lack the basics of life. Children in America lag behind most industrialised nations on key child indicators. The US is towards the bottom of the league in relative child poverty, in the gap between rich and poor, teen birth rates, low birth weight, infant mortality, child victims of gun violence, and the number of minors in jail.
For many people outside the US, it is incomprehensible how the richest nation on earth lets every sixth child live in (relative) poverty, how its laws allow a child to be killed by guns every three hours; or how so many children and families can live without basic health insurance. Ratifying the CRC will not by itself dramatically change the situation of America’s children. But it would help establish a critical national framework to formulate clear goals and targets which the federal and state governments, private organizations and individuals can use to shape policies and programs to better meet the needs of children and their families.